As much as it is measured by affection, success is too often measured by hate. Hate proves a useful metric because it allows writers to test how successful they’ve been, positioning their selves on one side of the political divide. How much the Right or Left hates you often reflects how much the other side cherishes your work. Hate is often the proud boast of the properly successful political writer; unless you’re J.K. Rowling, of course, once much loathed by the Right and now much loathed by the Left. Which neatly leads me into today’s rant about Starkers, the nation’s least favourite racist house elf…
David Starkey is feeling the loathing today — dropped by both publisher and universities — after he claimed that “slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa”. It was an awful thing to say, even if the thrust of his argument was correct.
The word “genocide” does indeed refer (and only refer, according to the OED) to “the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group”. Slavery was not genocide in the very strict sense, no matter many Guardian column inches are wasted today arguing the opposite. That doesn’t, however, mean that slavery wasn’t “genocidal” and that treating people as a resource wouldn’t have led to the eventual decimation of a people. That is a very human instinct. We kill animals to extinction, plunder resources until there are none left. Slavers didn’t care a whiff about the plight of the people they traded. Countless numbers died during the journey but slavers also wiped out families, tribes, villages, and towns. But Starkey wasn’t talking about that. What he said was that “slavery was not genocide”. In those limited terms, he was correct.
Yet Starkers couldn’t just bang in the easy goal. He had to run off down the touchline screaming about the “damn blacks in Africa”. It makes my ears bleed by retyping that. If you wanted to say something that sounds exactly like the vile racism of England in the 1970s, it would involve the phrase “damn blacks” and mentioning that there were so many of them.
His defenders will no doubt launch counteroffensives, claiming that he was right about the first point and that the “damn” was merely for emphasis but Starkey does this too often or, perhaps, it would be correct to say, he does it “just enough”. He does it just enough to be the “bad boy” of academia. If you were a right-wing agitator with a new channel to launch, what better man than Starkers to push you into the headlines? If your channel is called “Reason”, then isn’t this the kind of provocative argument you’d want to engender? Hey, snowflakes! If only you used reason then you would prove it’s a perfectly normal thing to say… Pull it apart and look at its constituent parts, they’d say. Then it’s all sensible.
I’ve written quite a bit, recently, about how symbols are appropriated by different clans and, here, we’re at it again. Last year it was “Liberal” – adopted by any right-wing loon howling at the moon – and this year it’s going to be “Reason” being mugged by anybody who thinks it’s either clever or funny to say something offensively provocative. The Right giggle with glee when the Left gets triggered and the Left get triggered because… well… what Starkey said was unquestionably racist.
And yes, I did write “unquestionably”. There were ways he could have mitigated the thing he’d said but he didn’t. “I phrased that poorly and I apologize” should have been the next words out of his mouth because “damn blacks” is egregious. If the “damn” doesn’t qualify “blacks” (dehumanising a race in exactly the same way that slavers once did) it was meant to emphasise their number, which is equally sickening. Yet Starkey gets away with it time and time again because he’s supposed to be free-thinking intellectual who words can’t be neutralised by a few liberal gasps.
Starkey is good at this because he knows the rules. He will be saved by the cavalry charge of English Boneheads, ready to defend every inch of ground. Just as the Left will condemn every word from his mouth, the Right will claim it’s protected speech, simply expressing “truth”. They won’t do what I’ve done here and balance the dictionary definition against language that was loathsome. It’s like the right-wing protestor who was urinating next to the memorial of the fallen police officer in London last month. Yes, it was wrong to say he was urinating “on” the memorial. He was to the side. Yet that shouldn’t have been used as a defence as it was by so many on the Right. Where did they think his urine went? Do they applause people micturating in the streets? Waving an EU flag is traitorous but pissing so very British?
This is the nature of so much political coverage and writers who achieve notoriety by being provocative. It’s as true about those on the Left as those on the Right. It’s more money in the bank and a bit more bad rep with which to sell books to either a traditionalist or a radical audience. And that’s essentially what this comes down to. Pick a market and prepare to sell your soul.
I guess that’s why I don’t really understand hate. I’ve never experienced it in huge amounts. Most of the pieces I write, I could easily come down on one side and make an argument but I choose not to do that. Take another story from yesterday. I could have written:
Stanley Johnson is the embodiment of a cruel elite who care so little for ordinary men and women in Britain that they betray them with their brazen indifference towards the rules. Where people sacrifice their freedom to stop the Coronavirus, StanJo flies off to his luxury pad in Greece, not just reminding most people that they can’t afford this luxury, but also spitefully exposing the lie that Brexit would affect all of us equally. He’ll be back playing the nation’s favourite uncle the next time this lot need our votes. Until then, hold all calls… He’s not in the office for any old hoi polli – which I’m sure Stanley could tell you is Greek for “suckers”.
Stanley Johnson is the embodiment of Britain’s greatest quality: the freedom to do whatever the bloody well he pleases! There might be some beret-wearing plankton out there who disagree with his actions but, listen bozos, that’s because he’s brave enough to do what he wants and not what you tell him to do! If we all took as much responsibility for our own health, maybe the country wouldn’t be so scared to get a haircut. Wear a mask or don’t wear a mask; stay indoors or get some fresh air: it’s all down to you. Good luck, Stanley! Hope you enjoy your much-deserved break and let’s hope you return to a much more tolerant Blighty!
Okay, neither are sparking but I’m not going to waste time polishing the life out of this crap. The point is: I could write either. I could push this argument down the gentle incline of the bias shared by about 30-40% of the audience and make persuasive arguments, laced with just enough jokes to make them smile. The paying audience would never complain, no matter how dull and repetitive my articles were, so long as I remained inside the lines. [Cough cough, Hitchens, P.]
And I wish I could, but I don’t entirely agree with either of those arguments. I can see some truth in both but I’m in that awful middle where I’d properly write…
Stanley Johnson has again revealed where his son gets his cloth ear. Holiday in Greece in the middle of a pandemic: it looks terrible for the Prime Minister, though it’s important to stress than his father is not in government. He doesn’t have voters to please and isn’t up for re-election. Unless he broke the law, the story amounts to a great big “SO WHAT”. Yawn once and move on…
And moving on is exactly what I intend to do.
I’m drawing today, trying to make up for lost time, but also wrestling with whether I should post some new cartoons here or leave them for the ebook. I really don’t know what to do… I want to keep the blog ticking over but I worry that some visitors might be here for the cartoons, not my boring pontification.
I also intend to write a small addendum to my previous bit about Picard, now I’ve finished the series. And, yes, my energy levels are on the bounce. I’m feeling considerably better thanks to the new hayfever tablets and I haven’t sneezed in days. I’ve also just had a delivery of pasta so I can eat for a few more days. I yearn for pasta! It’s my favourite food. Can’t get enough of the stuff…